Recommended Listening: Our Top 10 Pieces of Minimal Music

With giants of American minimalism Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich all featuring in recent programmes, we’ve enjoyed compiling a list of our favourite pieces of minimalist music.

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Terry Riley, In C (1964) – Widely regarded as the ‘godfather of minimalism’, in the 1960s Riley was deeply influenced by Jazz and Indian classical music, and pioneered the use of tape, electronics, and experimental performance techniques in his compositions. The seminal In C inspired a subsequent generation of minimalist composers, and is a prominent example of aleatoric music (also called ‘indeterminate’ or ‘chance’ music), whereby elements of the composition are left to chance or to be decided by the performers. As such, In C is written for ‘a group of about 35’ musicians playing unspecified instruments, who repeat musical phrases of different lengths a random number of times, so that performances can last for several hours or only a few minutes. As performances vary so much every recording of In C is completely different – we particularly like this interpretation from the Bang on a Can All-Stars new music ensemble in New York, who use an array of instruments from all over the world.

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Steve Reich, Eight Lines (1979)
– Steve Reich explains that ‘in serial music, the series itself is seldom audible... What I'm interested in is a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing.’ In many ways Eight Lines (premiered in 1979 under the title Octet) is an archetypal piece of minimalist music, making its musical processes plainly audible: short, repeating syncopated rhythms densely layered together and gradually transforming, resulting in music that hums with clockwork-like activity. Whilst many find the endlessly shifting repetitions of Reich’s music beautifully mesmeric and fascinating, others find it unbearable; Michael Tilson Thomas recalls that midway through the premiere of Reich’s Four Organs in 1970 ‘One woman walked down the aisle and repeatedly banged her head on the front of the stage, wailing “Stop, stop, I confess”’.

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Arvo Pärt, Fratres (for Violin and Piano, 1980)
– Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s mystical brand of minimal music has been dubbed ‘Holy Minimalism’ along with the similarly slow, meditative output of fellow composers John Tavener and Henryk Górecki. Fratres (like In C written with no fixed instrumentation) exemplifies his unique two-part style of composition that he has called ‘tintinnabuli’, inspired by bells and chant music, whereby one part outlines triad arpeggios whilst the other moves in slow stepwise motion. The steady pace, harmonic simplicity and meditative quality of much of Pärt’s music has made him popular among a wide variety of audiences worldwide. 

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Philip Glass, Soundtrack to Koyaaniqatsi (1983)
– Glass says that ‘I've been called a minimalist composer for more than 30 years, and while I've never really agreed with the description, I've gotten used to it.’ Though he may be reluctant to claim the title, he is surely one of the pre-eminent composers of minimal music, and has written numerous operas, orchestral works, a large body of chamber music, as well as film scores.  We especially like the unnervingly repetitive and atmospheric music he wrote to accompany the experimental non-narrative documentary Koyaaniqatsi, which is mostly comprised of slow-motion and time-lapse landscape footage.

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John Adams, Harmonium (1987) –
Arguably the leading American composer of his generation, Adams’s music is loved by audiences all over the world, and sure enough this grand choral symphony is a riot from start to finish. Though much of Adams’s work has strong roots in minimalism, his use of minimalist processes, such as the layering of short repeated motifs to create dense textures, is tempered by a more conventional approach to melody and musical development, making his style more familiar and approachable than most other minimalist music. 

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Steve Reich, Different Trains (1988)
– Given the nature of Reich’s music (not to mention his standing as one of the giants of minimalism) it seemed only right that his name should be repeated on this list. Different Trains is a prominent example of Reich’s work with tape, using short snippets of speech, recordings of train noises, and multi-tracked string samples alongside a live string quartet, whose short melodic lines imitate the rhythms and cadences of the recorded voices. Initially Reich evokes the long train journeys he frequently made across America as a child in the 1940s, but the piece grows darker as it progresses, using snippets of interviews with Holocaust survivors to contrast Reich’s journeys to those made by other Jewish children in Europe during the same period. 

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Louis Andriessen, M is for Man, Music, Mozart (1991)
– Reacting against what he saw as the rigid conservatism of the concert hall, in the 1970s Dutch composer Louis Andriessen stopped writing for traditional ensembles, choosing instead to write mostly for non-orchestral instruments like saxophones and electric guitars, and refusing to compose for string instruments at all. Meanwhile combining the influences of European Modernism, Jazz, and American minimalism in his music, Andriessen developed a unique mature style, writing music that’s funky, angular and repetitive, full of punchy melodies and driving rhythms. M is for Man, Music, Mozart is particularly good fun, recycling an enormous array of quotations from Mozart’s music and requiring complete commitment from its lead singer.

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David Lang/Michael Gordon/Julia Wolfe, Shelter (2005)
As well as being established composers in their own right, David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe together form the composing supergroup Bang on a Can, which also stages concerts, commissions new work from other composers, and has its own ensemble (the Bang on a Can All-Stars whose recording of In C we already recommended). Much like most other composers on this list these three would hate to be reduced to the label ‘minimalist’, preferring to write music without generic borders, freely mixing pop techniques with classical tradition to create a unique and exciting soundworld where anything can happen.

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John Luther Adams, Become Ocean (2013)
– Not to be confused with the John Adams already mentioned, fellow American composer John Luther Adams has spent much of his life living in Alaska and is deeply influenced by environmental concerns and the natural landscape. Become Ocean is an epic work for large orchestra, and along with Debussy’s La Mer might just be one of the most evocative musical depictions of the sea we’ve ever heard, except that this ocean is witnessed from beneath, with vast waves of sound slowly cresting and crashing overhead. It is also a great example of rigorous musical process (a key feature of minimalist music) in that the entire work is a great big palindrome, meaning that the whole forty-two minute piece is perfectly symmetrical (basically, the second half of the piece is the first half in reverse).

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Max Richter, Sleep (2015)
– For those who claim that minimalist music puts them to sleep British composer Max Richter has written the perfect response: an enormous eight-hour long piece for small ensemble that is literally intended to help the listener nod off, then accompanies them through the night and gently rouses them in the morning. The whole work was broadcast live on Radio 3 from the Wellcome Collection in London last year, performed throughout the night by musicians (including Richter himself) who took shifts playing in between short naps, while the audience in the room slept in beds around them.

What do you make of our selection? We’d love to hear what you would add! Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

Follow the links here to find out more about our minimalist programmes on 11 February and 15 March.

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